Thursday, April 3, 2008

People Are Strange

I was supposed to meet my two fellow teacher-trainers at their hotel for bit of coffee and strategizing before descending upon the trailer (sorry: portable) where the training session was to occur. They were nowhere in sight. I sought out the dining room and ensconced myself with a free USA Today (is there any other kind, really?) to wait.

Something I couldn't quite figure out what, or why. Something was happening out on the periphery of my vision, and some part of my brain was monitoring it enough to know that it was somehow askew. So I put down the rag and paid attention to my surroundings. There was a gaggle of middle-aged Church Ladies milling around a table. They had those Church Lady hats and purses, and grimly out-of-fashion clothing. But something was odd. They had forearms the size of tree trunks. And the voices coming out of them were deeper than seemed right. I looked around the room and realized (yes, I had completely missed it while walking in), that the hotel was hosting a "Gender Issues" conference. I was surrounded by transvestites.

Now, I lived in New York City for a decade, and I had an apartment on Christopher Street for the first few of those years, deep in the heart of Greenwich Village. I worked in the theatre for years. I have seen my fair share of transvestites. When the Gay Pride parade passed down my street each year, it was made clear to me that I had a moral obligation to throw open my doors and let pretty much anyone hang out on my fire escape to watch the parade go by. Which I happily did. And let me tell you, the transvestites that marched by during those parades were fine. I mean, supermodel beautiful...especially when compared with what I was seeing in this hotel lobby.

Here in the Southwest, apparently, the class of trannie one gets is a bit lower down in the pecking order. There were no supermodels here. What we seemed to have were a bunch of bankers and car salesmen--dumpy, round, balding, and gruff...and dressed up in the frumpiest, dowdiest outfits you could imagine--things I didn't think were actually still available for sale. These were not men trying to look like Whitney Houston; these were men trying to look like Grandma.

My fellow trainers were completely freaked out by the whole thing, and made lots of unfortunate and very old jokes (later on, out of earshot) about pronoun confusion. Which was too bad, really, because there was nothing threatening about any of this. It's either something you feel the need to do or it's not. It either goes along with being gay or it doesn't. It's playing dress-up. And ok, I'm sure there were people at that hotel for the Gender Issues conference who had serious and profound issues--issues that have made life difficult and painful for them. But is it the gender issue itself that has made life painful, or is it everyone else's reaction to it, day after day? Is it everyone pointing and chuckling and saying, "look at the freak"?

All I'm saying is, ultimately, who's to say who's a freak? And who really cares? Oh, I know it's easy to think there's an actual "mainstream" out there--but only if you don't look very hard. There are a lot of folks able and willing to conform to the norm at the surface level. But the surface level is just window dressing. Underneath that, we are not all made to factory spec. We are not robots.

And what a vast and strange array of non-robots we really are.

We recently moved Thing 1 to a Jewish Day School, after homeschooling him for a year (and that, after a disastrous first half of first grade at an allegedly progressive private school). We chose the school because of the Jewish education aspect of it, which we liked a lot, but also because the class size was very small, which Thing 1 needed.

One of the fascinating things about this school is that it caters to all denominations of Judaism. There are Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, and Chasidic kids and parents (and teachers) milling around the courtyard each morning. And they all talk to each other and they all get along. They have made a safe space at this school (a very rare and magical place) where the denominations can come together and just be Jews together. And these are groups, in case you're not up on your internecine Jewish squabbling, that Do Not Get Along out in the world. I've gone into shops in New York City where the owner refused to shake my hand or look my wife in the face--possibly because she was wearing a short-sleeved shirt. I've gotten in arguments with people over who should rightfully be considered a Jew in Israel--or have the right to perform weddings and bar mitzvahs. The acrimony can be palpable.

But not here. Here in the school courtyard, you can see Social X-Ray women in high fashion and women in plain skirts and kerchiefs around their heads; men in perfectly ordinary suits and men with tzit-tzit fringes hanging out over their belts; the beardless and the bearded. And here they're just parents. They talk to each other. They invite each other home for dinner. Their kids play together in the afternoons. I look around in the mornings, when we're all dropping off our children, and I think, "we can all get along--any group of us--if we'll just let each other be."

At a certain point, we're all freaks. We're all weirdos. Maybe the bank president isn't wearing a dress when he comes home from work--maybe he's just playing with model trains in the basement...and slowly, painstakingly, creating an alternate universe down there, with houses, roads, cars, human figures--a whole world, taking up the entire basement. I've met such a man. You'd never guess he was playing god to his own universe in his basement. But that's what basements are for.

Or there's my cousin--a successful editor and writer, a good husband and father, a mensch in every way. He's also a nudist.

Maybe it's a passion for karaoke. Or ballroom dancing. Maybe it's a fantasy football league that's taking up way too much of someone's time. Hell, maybe it's a real football league that makes someone show up to a game in 15-degree weather, shirtless, painted green.

We are infinitely strange--that's all I'm saying. Strange in deep places or dark corners where it's most surprising. Profoundly strange. And sometimes unknowably strange. And wonderfully strange. And we should just relax and enjoy that about each other.

So quit it with the "he, she, or it" jokes, girls. It's just people. And just people is plenty weird enough.

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